Charoset (pronounced kha-ROE-set, or kha-ROE-ses), one of the symbolic foods at the Passover Seder, is a sweet paste of fruits, nuts and wine. Its place is on the lower right side of the Seder plate.

Unlike other Seder items, such as the matzah and bitter herbs (which are mandated by Scripture) and even the egg (which is highly symbolic), at first glance, the charoset does not seem to have an important role of its own. Nevertheless, as we shall see, in its own way the charoset is symbolic of what Passover is all about, even more than some of the other foods.

The Talmud gives several reasons for the charoset, and these reasons serve as the basis for the recipe and texture of this Passover paste.

Slavery and Servitude

Take a look at the Hebrew word charoset (חֲרֹסֶת) and you’ll see that it contains the word חרס, which means “clay,”1 reminiscent of the clay the Israelites used in Egypt: “The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel . . . with clay and with bricks, and with all kinds of labor in the fields.”2

Thus, charoset is traditionally ground up into a paste, to have the consistency of clay.3

Under the Apple Trees

Elaborating on the verse in the Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree I aroused you; there your mother was in travail with you; there she who bore you was in travail,” the Talmud tells us that during the time of slavery, Israelite women would give birth under the apple trees in the field. Once the babies were born, a miracle would take place:

G‑d would send an angel who would clean and prepare the newborns, just like a midwife. . . . And then the angel would gather for them two round stones from the field, and the babies would nurse from what flowed out of them. One of the stones flowed with oil, and one of the stones flowed with honey. . . . Once the Egyptians would notice them, realizing that they were Jewish babies, they would come to kill them. But a miracle would occur, and they would be swallowed up by the earth. The Egyptians would then bring oxen and would plow over them. . . . After the Egyptians would leave, the babies would emerge and exit the ground like grass of the field. . . . Once the babies would grow, they would come like many flocks of sheep to their homes. . . . When G‑d revealed Himself at the Red Sea, these children recognized Him first . . .”

This tradition is the reason the charoset is made tart, often with apples.

Neutralizing the Kappa

The charoset is used at the Seder as a condiment into which the maror (bitter herb) is dipped. There is an opinion in the Talmud that this serves to neutralize the harmful kappa which is found in the maror. This is either an acrid element found in the sap, or a type of worm.4

While this explains the reason why the maror is dipped into charoset, many explain that the actual placement of the charoset on the Seder table is due to the symbolism discussed above.5

Eating the Charoset

Even though we dip the bitter herbs into the charoset, there is no requirement to actually eat the stuff. In fact, many (including Chabad) have the custom to shake off the charoset after the bitter herbs are dipped into it, so that they eat pure, unadulterated maror. Why does the charoset not have any minimal requirement?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this is based on the two seemingly contradictory reasons for the charoset. On the one hand, it corresponds to the miserable clay of servitude. On the other hand, it evokes the apple trees, where the birth and miraculous upbringing of the next generation took place—a miracle that hinted toward the future exodus even while we were in exile.6

As Rabbi Yehuda Loewe (known as the Maharal of Prague) explains,7 the holiday of Passover does not simply celebrate our freedom from oppression. After all, throughout our long history, even under harsh and grueling conditions at the hands of other oppressive tyrants, we Jews have continued to celebrate our freedom from Egypt.

So what are we celebrating? The freedom we achieved through the Exodus on Passover transformed the essential nature of the Jewish people. We acquired the nature of free people, to the point that in our essence we are free, and no one has the ability to subjugate our essential selves ever again. Thus, despite subsequent oppression, enslavement and torture, the fundamental nature of the Jewish people remains free. This sustains us even through the harshest parts of exile. Our enemies may have attempted to subjugate our physical bodies, but they no longer have the ability to subjugate our spirit. (For more on this, see On the Essence of Freedom.)

This is the inner meaning of the dual symbolism of the charoset. Yes, there is clay, and we were forced to make bricks, but there are also miracles happening, and G‑d’s salvation is already taking shape under the apple trees.

This is why there is no quota of charoset that one must consume. For it corresponds to the essential character of the Jewish nation, which will forever remain free. Although many things come in measurements, this essential freedom is infinite, immeasurable and uncontainable. It has kept us free and strong throughout this long and bitter exile, and it will burst forth into the open with the final redemption, may it be speedily in our days!